January 2011

"The highway's jammed with broken heroes"

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Somewhere between the Cavaliers’ historic 55-point loss to the Lakers and the Browns’ hiring of what seems like their 55th head coach since 1999, the thought occurred to me that the most pessimistic sports town in America must be feeling particularly pessimistic these days.
For the Cavs, it’s just like starting over, in the wake of LeBron James’ departure and the startling revelation that, during his tenure here, he might have actually had some impact on the team regularly being a playoff contender. With James gone, the Cavs have taken their “All for One, One for All” slogan a bit too literally, winning precisely one of their last 22 games, as of this writing. To the lottery they limp.

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Then you have the Browns, for whom turnover is even more frequent than turnovers. The only constant with the “new” Browns over the last 11 seasons — aside from losses, of course — has been fan support. But that loyalty has, aside from one lone and unfulfilling playoff appearance, largely gone unrewarded, thanks to objectionable acquisitions and dismal drafts. Last year, it appeared the new regime, led by Mike Holmgren, got it right on the latter end, but, as much as Browns fans can talk themselves into anything, it will probably take at least one or two more of those strong showings on draft day for the team to turn it around.
All of which brings us to the Indians, possessors of the longest-tenured leader in town in manager Manny Acta (he’s, uh, been here for 15 months) and a reputation for retooling, thanks to the trades of two Cy Young winners and, well, everybody else over the age of 28 and not named Travis Hafner.
Yet when held up to the standards of their Cleveland counterparts, suddenly the Tribe’s rebuilding résumé doesn’t look quite so repugnant, does it?
Thanks to a little thing known as the salary cap, the rebuilding concept is, in theory, much more efficiently seen to its fruition in the NBA — where, as the Cavs proved, you just need one premier guy to build around — and the NFL. Immediately — and not even delving into the muddy waters of baseball economics — this places the Indians at a disadvantage, when it comes to capturing the imagination of the local fan populace.
Never mind that the Indians’ last rebuild, tenuous as the end result might have been, saw the club win 93 games and barely miss the postseason just three years removed from the initiation of the process. And never mind that such a turnaround looks like — wait for it, “Spaceballs” fans — “ludicrous speed” when compared to the ongoing and longstanding droughts in places like Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Cleveland possesses a bit of an impatient fan base. A nearly 50-year wait between titles will do that to a town.
But the Cavs’ downfall presents an interesting opportunity for an Indians team that, in recent years, has seen even its most attractive first-half games suffer at the gates, thanks in no small part to LeBron, ahem, lighting it up like Las Vegas next door at the Q.
While 2011 is not projected to see the Tribe take that grand leap into contention, it is most definitely a time when this team, which attracted the lowest attendance total in the Majors last season, has a chance to win back the hearts of — or, at the least, generate some interest from — even the most fickle fans.
In order for that to happen, a lot must go right for an organization that, to be sure, has seen more than its fair share of things go wrong and has not majored in good luck the last few years. As I wrote last week, the Indians need to prove this season that they got some value out of the CC Sabathia trade, and it’s up to Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley to do the proving. But there are certainly some other pieces here that could allow the Indians to take that step from rebuild to respectability.
To me, it all begins with Carlos Santana, whose Major League debut created the only legitimate buzz in Progressive Field last season — aside, of course, from Stephen Strasburg taking the mound for the Nationals and the gates opening at Snow Days.

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It is completely unfair to place a heavy burden of expectations on a guy who has just 150 big league at-bats to his name and who is coming off an injury. But Santana’s surgery wasn’t invasive enough to lead to major concern about him being ready for Opening Day, and his premier plate discipline is a skill that carries over considerably well.
The bottom line is that an Indians lineup with Shin-Soo Choo (whose rising star I’ll address in a later column) and Santana in prominent spots is infinitely more interesting than many of the injury riddled lineups Acta and his predecessor, Eric Wedge, were forced to turn in the last couple years. And any fans still bemoaning the loss of Victor Martinez have plenty of reason to stop crying into their catcher’s mitts.
Hey, Santana was even the subject of a “Jeopardy!” question the other night. His star is rising.
Another asset the Indians have working for them is closer Chris Perez. The horrid bullpen endured by the Indians in recent years has been corrected considerably by Perez’s maturation into the closer’s role, and his presence in the back end can have a calming effect on the rest of the ballclub. What’s more, in Perez’s personality, the Indians have a new marketable asset. He has true closer’s confidence (not to mention the right hair for the job), and his candidness resonates well in these parts. The Indians should take advantage of that.
Speaking of marketability, the Indians figure to have Grady Sizemore back on the field. Of course, it was Grady’s boyish good looks that won him over with the female fan base and his uncompromising style of play — equal parts fearless and reckless — that won him over with the men. Rest assured, ladies, the former survived two years’ worth of injuries, but the latter led to a complex knee surgery that leaves Sizemore’s future performance in potential peril.
Much like the fictitious Billy Mumphrey in that equally fictitious “Seinfeld” episode, Grady’s unbridled enthusiasm led to his downfall. The only ones firmly expecting him to contribute at his 2008 level this season are probably guilty of a bit of unbridled enthusiasm themselves. But again, from an advertising standpoint, having a player of Sizemore’s caliber on the field, in any form, is a good thing for this ballclub.
Where the Indians will suffer, obviously, is in the rotation. Incremental improvements and a Fausto Carmona comeback aside, the Tribe still possesses a rather rag-tag bunch, relative to the likes of the Tigers, White Sox and Twins. That said, who’s to say Carlos Carrasco, who provided some September sizzle last season, isn’t ready to take the leap toward the forefront? And an Alex White debut — which appears possible in the second half, if his 2010 perform
ance at the Double-A level is any indication — would attract interest, as well.
I think back to that Strasburg game and the packed house at Progressive that Sunday afternoon. It was an all-too-necessary reminder that burgeoning baseball talent — not just fireworks shows or bobblehead giveaways — still resonates with people in this town. The Indians need it to resonate enough to start generating adequate revenues, because then and only then will they have an offseason in which signing Austin Kearns doesn’t constitute the extent of their expenditures.
Of course, fans here were slow to warm to even the 2007 team that won an AL Central title and finished a win shy of the World Series, and they’ll be slow to adopt this latest incarnation of the Indians, too. But if the Indians can show that some of the seeds they’ve sewn the last few years are ready to bloom and can hover around .500, they can finally start to register on the radar again.
After all, given the exploits of this town’s NBA and NFL entries, the current sporting standard here is not all that difficult to overcome.
~AC

"We were always waiting for something to happen"

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While the Indians might hold the dubious distinction of being the only club in history to trade consecutive Cy Young Award winners, they can at least take newfound comfort in knowing they are no longer the most recent AL Central club to trade a Cy Young winner.
Hey, it’s the little things in life.
But the Zack Greinke trade made by the Royals last month does not mean the Tribe is totally in the clear. Fans here are still waiting for some substantive proof that the Indians received reasonable returns for CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in 2008 and ’09, respectively.
Nationally, the consensus seems to be that the Indians came out of those blockbuster deals virtually empty-handed. In one sense, that’s a cynical, short-sighted point of view, given that one of the principal players acquired in the Lee deal, Jason Knapp, is just 20 years old and slated for Class A ball in 2011, while Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson have just 471 combined games of Major League experience between them.
In another sense, the skepticism is somewhat justified, particularly in the case of the Sabathia trade, made 30 months ago.
The now-famed 2002 Bartolo Colon deal began to bear fruit in 2004, when Cliff Lee won 14 games and Grady Sizemore made his eye-opening debut. It was in 2005 when both of those players firmly entrenched themselves into the Indians’ definition of “core.” Both guys were in Double-A at the time of the deal — as was the case with LaPorta and Brantley at the time of the Sabathia trade — so, strictly from a timeline standpoint, it’s not all that unreasonable to suggest that 2011, three years removed from the trade, is a time when LaPorta and Brantley ought to prove their long-term value.

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LaPorta, at present, is the bigger concern of the two, by virtue of the fact that he’s had more than 500 at-bats in the bigs and has struggled to make them meaningful.
The October 2009 hip and turf toe surgeries that hindered his offseason conditioning program no doubt had an effect on LaPorta’s endurance and, therefore, his performance last year, which is why Tribe manager Manny Acta gave him a “mulligan” for the season.
(The recovery from surgery is also why LaPorta’s frame took on some added beef last winter, prompting White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, while struggling to remember LaPorta’s name, to refer to him as “the fat guy.”)
Such excuses expire in 2011. For all his flashes of potent pop and all his defensive strides at first base, the 26-year-old LaPorta has to prove what all natural sluggers ultimately have to prove at this level — that he has the necessary baseball intelligence to adjust his swing and approach and understand what the opposing pitcher is doing against him.
If he shows that ability with any consistency this year, then the Indians have plugged in a big bat at a prominent spot on the field and in the lineup. If not? The rebuilding plan takes a big hit.

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Brantley, 23, has offered a little more optimism in his first 100 games at this level. He certainly seemed to learn from a 2010 season in which the Indians masterfully managed his service time and challenged him at the Triple-A level. He hit .292 in the season’s final two months and continued to prove himself as a contact hitter. But he needs to draw more walks (22 in 325 plate appearances last year) and he definitely needs to develop more power (89 of his 108 hits in the Majors have been singles) if he’s not going to be known, simply, as a speedy guy who plays strong D. With Brantley, though, there is a lot to like at first glance.
We might get a look at another Sabathia trade acquisition this year, in the form of Rob Bryson, who recovered from shoulder issues to post a combined 2.53 ERA, .165 average against and 80 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings at the Class A and Double-A levels last year. Obviously, the CC trade will ultimately be judged by the performances of LaPorta and Brantley, but netting a quality relief arm out of the deal would be good for the soul.
To be fair, it’s a little more premature to judge the Lee trade, given that Knapp missed most of last season due to shoulder surgery (certainly not the best of PR developments in the immediate aftermath of that swap). I’m not even going to delve into Knapp’s numbers upon his return because, again, he was 20 years old and pitching in the Midwest League. 
But as is the case with the CC deal, we’ll know a lot more about the Lee trade after 2011, when we get a full-season look at Carrasco in the rotation and we have more definitive answers on whether Jason Donald is a full-time second baseman and Lou Marson, playing in a backup role behind the dish, can hit in the bigs.

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Carrasco is the most important measuring stick, and if he can limit the long ball (particularly because he tends to have his share of traffic on the basepaths) he appears to be a guy you can slot into the front end of your rotation. His seven September starts, in which he went 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA and struck out 38 in 44 2/3 innings, was a nice first step.
While the CC and Lee trades obviously get the ink, admittedly it’s sometimes the less-magnified moves (Casey Blake for Carlos Santana, anyone?) that have the grander impact on a club. The Twins proved that you can whiff on a trade involving your Cy Young winner (Johan Santana) and still put together a competitive club. 
But these trades were defining moments in the recent history of the Indians. The CC swap hinted at a rebuild, and the Lee trade confirmed it.
One problem for the Indians is that a rebuild that began in what was oft-labeled (by yours truly and others) a “winnable” division continues in a climate in which the ante has been raised significantly. The Twins’ new ballpark has made them a big-market club, the Tigers have developed one of the strongest rotations in the league, the White Sox have had a surprisingly aggressive offseason and aren’t going anywhere, and even the lowly Royals have developed enough depth in their farm system to make contention in 2012 or ’13 — dare I say — realistic.
So the Indians have to hope they got it right, now more than ever. And 2011 would be a wonderful time for them to start seeing meaningful returns on two of the most high-profile trades in club history.
~AC
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